College is a place filled with newfound freedoms. No one tells you when to go to bed, what time to go to class or what’s for dinner. It’s also a time to try new things — and for many young adults, that includes drinking.
More than 50% of full-time college students ages 18 to 22 reported drinking alcohol in the last month, according to the most recent National Survey on Drug Use and Health. More than 38% surveyed engaged in binge drinking.
While alcohol is often depicted as part of campus culture, George Koob, director of the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) at the National Institutes of Health, said college drinking doesn’t come without consequences.
Researchers estimate that alcohol contributes to 1,519 student deaths each year. Plus, more than 695,000 students between the ages of 18 and 24 are assaulted by another student who has been drinking.
There are also long-term health consequences. Koob said young adults’ brains are still developing and thus are “very sensitive to all kinds of environmental insults.” Drinking can also affect sleep and trigger anxiety and depression, both of which are on the rise among college students.
“This is a critical age for development of anxiety disorders, development of major depressive episodes. Alcohol doesn’t help in any of those at all,” Koob said.
Then there are academics: Koob said skipping studies to party with friends and missing morning lectures due to hangovers “can spiral and spin out of control, such that academic efforts get neglected because you’re so involved in a party scene involving alcohol.”
For parents there’s no real manual for how to prepare your child for college when it comes to alcohol, but Koob said there are some things you can do to help put prevention measures in place.
1. First, he said an open line of communication is key. Call your child routinely and ask questions about their academic and social interests.
“Now I don’t mean helicoptering … but checking in once in a while,” Koob said. “You know your child better than anybody in the world. You can sense that something is [wrong].”
2. Encourage intramural sports and clubs. Koob, who taught at the University of California for more than 30 years, said the kids who adjusted well to college life were often involved in extracurricular activities.
“There are all kinds of things that you can engage in that are an alternative source of a great deal of pleasure than hanging out drinking,” he said.
3. Ask your child’s school or perspective school how they address underage drinking. What are the prevention programs in place? Are they effective? NIAAA’s College AIM platform is a resource parents and administrators can use to research these strategies.
4. Koob said it’s only natural for children to mimic their parents’ behavior, so if you behave responsibly around alcohol, it encourages them to do the same.
He also recommends that those of legal drinking age “rethink the drink” to get a better understanding of how alcohol affects them.
A lifestyle that embraces healthier drinking habits has gained traction in recent years. Dry January has become a social media phenomenon, and more bars are listing creative nonalcoholic drinks on their menus. Some bars aren’t serving alcohol at all.
“The evidence that, globally, people are consuming less volume of alcohol has been widely documented,” said Seedlip founder Ben Branson.
“This, coupled with the steep decline of sugary fizzy, drinks, a younger generation shunning alcohol altogether and the focus on health and wellness all point toward a long positive future for this movement.”
Koob added, “It’s not going to cure anything, taking January off. But it will make you, as an individual, think about your relationship with alcohol and do you actually feel better and are you using it maybe as a coping mechanism.”
“If you feel better, that’s telling you something.”